Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought
By David Biale
Princeton University Press, 2011; 229 pages
The very notion of a tradition of Jewish secular thought might seem paradoxical. We are used to identifying or even defining secularity as a worldview and a lifestyle that breaks with a tradition—in this case the Jewish tradition—and its shadows. While we associate tradition with continuity and submission, secularity stands for change and autonomy. And mainly, we were taught to think of Jewish secularism and the polar negation of the Jewish religious tradition. This notion of the aster narrative of secularism is brilliantly challenged by David Biale in his groundbreaking and fascinating book, Not in the Heavens: The tradition of Jewish Secular Thought, a classic must-read for any student or scholar of secularism and/or modern Jewish thought.
If tradition is a mode of thought and/or behavior followed by individuals over generations, not only can the existence of secular Jewish tradition not be denied but one must admit to the existence of multiple traditions of Jewish secularism. Far from being a homogenous process, Jewish secularization, as Biale demonstrates, produced variegated and sometimes opposing traditions, including a philosophical tradition that tends to identify God with Nature, cultivated by those Biale calls “Spinoza’s children,” such as Salomon Maimon, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein; a mystical gnostic-inspired tradition, represented in Biale’s book by Hayim Nahman Bialik, Gershom Scholem, and Franz Kafka, which holds that God is hidden and inaccessible; a political tradition that includes Moses Hess, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion, which recasts the religious notion of God’s election of Israel into the pseudo-scientific secular term race or aspires to integrate that notion into the modern projects of nationalism and state; and even a semipagan tradition developed by Saul Tchernichovsky and the “Canaanite” movement, which called for the resurrection of the ancient pagan gods, both Greek and Canaanite, that would lead to the expulsion of Yahweh from Altneuland.
But Biale goes far beyond the argument that as a 350-year-old phenomenon (if one begins with Spionza), Jewish secularity created its own diverse and rich traditions alongside religious ones. The innovative and main argument of the book is that modern Jewish secularism is grounded in the premodern religious tradition that it rejects. Figures such as Elisha ben Abuyah, the first-century rabbinic heretic, or Shabbetai Zvi, the seventeenth-century antinomian, are undoubtedly important precursors for their modern heirs. However, for Biale, the most significant and formative source of influence for modern heretics and heresy is to be found—unexpectedly and provocatively—in the very heart of premodern religious tradition, which is in the canonical figure and writings of Judaism. Some figures, such as Ibn Ezra, who adhere to a literal reading of the bible even when it exposes the shortcomings of the text, started a project that will find its full and radical completion in the works of modern biblical critics such as Abraham Geiger and, much earlier, Spinoza, who in an uncharacteristic way explicitly acknowledged hid debt to his medieval precursors. However, the influence of other canonical religious figures on the development of Jeiwsh secularization was less direct and acknowledged, and more dialectical and concealed. Here, for example, Biale presents a fascinating analysis that demonstrates how the utter transcendence of Maimonides’ God was stood on its head by Spinoza, who exchanged it for his famous Deus sive Natura (God or Nature). Maimonides and Spinoza, Biale suggests, “were at once diametric opposites but also dialectical twins, just similar enough to be two sides of the same coin” (22).
However, Biale finds the seeds of modern subversion not only in the medieval milieu, but also in the ancient Talmudic world and even in the Bible itself. For example, the famous rabbinical interpretation of the verse “it [the Torah] is not in the heavens” (B, Bava Metzia 59b), or postexilic biblical writings, such as Esther, Job, and Ecclesiastes, present radical transcendence of God, sometimes even imply God’s complete absence.
Well aware of the sin of anachronism, Biale neatly avoids the simplistic argument equating premodern positions with the modern Jewish secularism that followed them. Instead he suggests a fascinating, diverse, and rich causal relationship between the two. These premodern positions, he argues, “were like genes that required the social and political environment of modernity before they could be expressed. They were less the proximate causes of Jewish secularism than they were providers of the dominant mentalité—the language and particular flavor—of that secularism when modern forces caused it to emerge” (6).
The structure of the book reflects its contrarian argument, and the presentation of the main figures and trends of Jewish secularism is organized around the three basic and interlinked pillars of Judaism: God, Torah, and Israel.
In Chapter 1, entitled “God: Pantheists, Kabbalists, and Pagans,” Biale traces three secular trends that suggest secular alternatives to traditional dominant conceptions of God in Judaism. If the first found its inspiration in the modern pantheism of Spinoza (Maimon, Heine, Freud, and Einstein), the second revised the medieval kabbalistic notion of God as “nothingness” or “void,” and adapted it to the modern sense of God’s absence (Bialik, Scholem, and Kafka), while the last trend went back to antiquity and endeavored to replace the God of Israel with the deities of Canaan and Greece (Tchernichovsky and the “Canaanite” movement).
Chapter 2 demonstrates how medieval thinkers like Ibn Ezra and Maimonides prefigured Spinoza’s historical criticism of the Bible, and how the latter opened the door for secular readings of the Book of Books: Heine appropriated it to his politics of social justice; Freud analyzed it as a patient on his couch; and Ben-Gurion mobilized it into the service of his plans for the incipient State of Israel. The two last chapters of the book explore how Spinoza’s transformation of Israel from a religious to a political entity lit the path to modern secular trends: Hess’s and Jabotinsky’s quasi-racial definition of the Jews; Herzl’s notion that anti-Semitism created the nation; Ben-Gurion’s focus on the crucial importance of the state to the nation; and both Arendt’s and Lazare’s harsh critiques of these positions. In addition, Biale explores those who define the people of Israel not only through the prisms of nation, race, and state, but also those who suggested a cultural definition focusing on history and language. Ahad ha’Am, Bialik, Dubnow, Brenner, Berdichevsky, Scholem, and Zhitlowsky all suggest historical accounts that served what they saw as the secular cultural need of the present, while arguing passionately that only one specific language—mainly, but not only, Hebrew or Yiddish—could serve as the cultural infrastructure for the emergence and efflorescence of Jewish secularity.
Weaving a refreshing historical narrative with provocative philosophical analysis, Biale justly presents Spinoza as a key figure of the master narrative of Jewish secularism. There is no doubt that no one key figure of the Jewish secular tradition exerted greater influence and assumed more significance than Spinoza. However, it is important to point out that during the fin de siècle, the real hero of Jewish secularism was not Spinoza, but Nietzsche. Philosemitic as he might have been, but definitely an outsider to the Jewish tradition, it was Nietzsche, not Spinoza who was the key figure for some of the most prominent founding fathers of Jewish secularism, such as Berdichevsky and Brenner. Even the opponents of the Hebrew Nietzscheans, such as Ahad ha’Am and A. D. Gordon, refer to and quote Nietzsche much more than they do Spinoza. Nevertheless, Biale’s account of the master narrative of Jewish secularity is without any doubt not only the most comprehensive and in-depth ever written to date, but also a masterpiece that any future scholarship on Jewish secularism will no doubt treat as a point of departure.
Dr. Yuval Jobani teaches Hebrew culture and Education at Tel-Aviv University. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University (2010-2011), and at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (2008-2010) where he was a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow under the supervision of Prof. Michael Walzer. His publications include: "Three Basic Models of Secular Jewish Culture", Israel Studies 13.3 (2008); "Ethical or Political Religion? On the Contradiction Between Two Models of Amended Religion in Spinoza’s ‘Theological-Political Treatise’ ", Hebraic Political Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Fall 2008), pp. 396-415; and "On scholars and soldiers", The Jewish Political Tradition (Vol.3), Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum and Noam Zohar (eds.) Yale University Press.
This article is reprinted from the AJS Review, Volume 35, Issue 02, pp. 454-456. Copyright © 2011 by the Association for Jewish Studies. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.